As I stood looking up at the narrow ridge known as Angels Landing, I had a decision to make. Continue on for the final half-mile of the treacherous trail, grasping the links of chain bolted into the red rock and braving the potential fall of a thousand feet to either side. Or turn around right there and traverse the mere 100 yards of similarly treacherous conditions to get back to the start of the trail.
There were clear benefits to both options. I had come here – to Zion National Park in southern Utah – to explore the breathtaking natural beauty. And so, to overcome my fear of heights in order to obtain a magnificent view of this canyon was an ideal that I aspired to. On the other hand, the way that my nerves had been shattered by the first 100 yards of trail had affected my psychological and physical state to such a degree that the idea of another half-mile, and then the entire trip back, seemed unappealing and downright dangerous.
The question I faced, therefore, was a question of risk. It was a question of how far to push myself, how much distance to put between me and my comfort zone in an attempt for personal growth (not to mention the bragging rights of reaching the top of such a trail).
As I chatted with other hikers who had also made it out to the viewpoint on which I was standing; as I looked up at the section of the trail that still remained; and as I listened to what my own body was telling me, the answer became clear. Turn around. What lies ahead is a physical and mental challenge that you’re not prepared for.
So I returned to the start of that narrow ridge.
But rather than continuing down the wide and safe path to the canyon floor, I noticed a second trail that also led upward, in the opposite direction of Angels Landing, on a much wider and safer-looking ridge. Feeling determined to have an upward adventure yet, I chose the second trail.
In the hours that followed I would find that that trail leads all the way up and out of the entire canyon, arriving at a height much greater than the peak of Angels Landing.
As I followed that path my mind and my nerves settled. I got farther and farther from the crowds of people that filled the more popular trail that I had abandoned. I was able to appreciate my surroundings in a stillness that was often hard to find in such a popular national park.
Immersed in that quiet, I was reminded of an idea shared by Michael Nobbs in one of his delightful podcasts (you might need to be a member to listen – if you do, sign up! – it’s well worth it). It had to do with comfort zones. Likely you’ve been told of the benefits of breaking out of your comfort zone from time to time. That is all well and good, Nobbs acknowledges, but we need to be careful not to push too far past our comfort zone. Because if we push too far, we run the risk of real injury.
I think it helps to think of three zones: a comfort zone, a safety zone, and a danger zone. Within the comfort zone we are, well, comfortable. Pushing past our comfort zone and into the safety zone we lose our complete comfort but gain the capacity for growth that requires a break from the norm – but our safety is never in danger. Outside of the safety zone lies the danger zone, where physical or emotional stress has reached such a level that we run a much higher risk of injuring ourselves.
As we push our limits – be it physically or emotionally – we need to take care not to move beyond our safety zone.
When I hiked those first hundred yards, I was clearly outside of my comfort zone, and, as best I could tell, reaching the edge of my safety zone. I had the feeling that had I continued up the steep ridge I would have quickly realized that I had entered a very real danger zone.
My hiking experience is an example of dealing with physical limits. But those same three zones exist on an emotional level as well. Particularly in a world where you are encouraged to share your experiences with others and “put yourself out there,” it’s a good idea to stay mindful of your emotional limits.
One component of the educational framework that I’m laying out on this site is the idea of sharing the story of your personal development as you learn new skills and work to master them. Though I encourage you to share your story to your own benefit as well as the benefit of others, I encourage you also to keep an eye on how such a public display is affecting you.
Sharing your creative work with the rest of the world can be hard, and it does take a certain toll emotionally. The key is to figure out a method of sharing that feels good to you. From time to time you can experiment with new methods, pushing your limits a bit. It’s okay if you feel out of your comfort zone from time to time, but take care to avoid pushing beyond your safety zone. If you ever find that one step in the wrong direction has the potential for serious harm, it’s time to reevaluate and think about changing course.
Photo Credit: Jiashiang